On the eve of the second trial over its painkiller Vioxx, drug giant Merck & Co on Friday sought to reassure investors that it has the money and determination to fight the mounting lawsuits and liability over the withdrawn drug.
"We are in this for the long haul. We have both the resources and the resolve to address these cases one by one over many years," Kenneth Frazier, Merck's general counsel and senior vice president, told reporters during a late-morning conference call.
"Merck's future is both secure and promising," he said.
Analysts have estimated Merck's liability at anywhere from several billion dollars up to US$50 billion.
Frazier seemed to backpedal slightly on statements he and Merck spokespeople made last month indicating the company might settle some lawsuits involving a relatively small number of Vioxx users believed to have had limited heart risk factors and to have taken the drug for 18 months or more.
"We will have to make decisions about what's the right way to proceed with those cases," Frazier said, but he also said several times that Merck will fight each case individually.
Merck pulled Vioxx from the market last September after research linked the popular arthritis drug to increased risk of heart attack and stroke after 18 months use, although some plaintiff attorneys and doctors say the risk began rising after much shorter use.
Frazier said the "very capable legal team" representing Merck in a trial starting Monday in Atlantic City would stick with the company strategy of presenting "sound, reliable evidence" to convince the jury that Vioxx did not cause the plaintiff's heart attack. He said the plaintiff, Frederick Humeston of Boise, Idaho, who survived the heart attack four years ago, had multiple cardiac risk factors and only took Vioxx intermittently.
Frazier said a major financial rating agency, which he did not identify, recently affirmed Merck's financial strength.
He said that will allow the company to continue investing in research on future drugs.